Xinjiang is China's most remote province, a majestic land of mountains and deserts through which the Silk Road meanders past salt lakes and dry riverbeds. It's something of an administrative headache for the People's Republic, since the population in many areas is non-Chinese. Most numerous in the south are the Uighurs (pronounced "way-wooers"), a Muslim Turkic group who historically served as guides along the ancient trade routes. They are inordinately fond of barbecued lamb and rice pilaf, and their food has become a fad in Beijing, where numerous Uighur restaurants have lately sprung up.
Café Kashkar is New York's first Uighur eatery. It's named after Kashgar, an oasis with a famous Sunday market 100 miles east of the Tajikistan border. When Marco Polo visited there in the 13th century, he was impressed: "The inhabitants . . . have very fine orchards and vineyards and flourishing estates . . . The country is the starting point from which many merchants set out to market their wares all over the world." Though the interior of the restaurant makes a wan attempt to recall the lushness of the oasis with sprays of purple plastic flowers and a beer-sign waterfall, the food is much more effective in doing so. One can easily imagine soups like chuchuara ($5) being ladled from huge pots in a market stall, the little mutton dumplings dancing in the buttery broth, while, right next to it, a cauldron of mampar ($3) bubbles with beef and irregular pasta, sprigs of fresh dill and cilantro waiting to be tossed in each bowl. Kashkar's version of the most famous of these soups, lagman, beats any in area Uzbeki placesdenser, richer, spicier, with a slick of red oil on the surface and an unruly mob of homemade noodles in the depths. The same excellent noodles are available stir-fried like a Chinese lo mein in goiro lagman. As you eat, it might occur to you that this is the pasta Mr. Polo surprised his pals with back in Venice.
Chief among Uighur delicacies is plov ($6), called "plow" on the awning, and "fried rice" on the menu. This version mixes chunks of well-cooked beef, instead of the usual mutton, with plump grains of very short rice. According to a friend who's sojourned in Central Asia, the brilliant orange hue is due to unrefined sunflower oil. Another well-executed standard is samsa ($1.50). In contrast to the kosher Uzbeki places in town that serve a big-domed turnover, the halal samsa at Kashkar consists of four miniature conjoined mutton pies, easily pulled apart and hospitably shared around the table.
Lamb is king in Xinjiang, and the kebabs prove it. Lightly dusted with cumin and an herb called zir, chunks of tender lamb arrive skewered on metal shafts, crisp around the edges and profoundly smoky from the charcoal fire. Each sword ($2) impales four to six pieces, and there's no cheaper way to eat good lamb. The advertised lamb chops are rarely available, but the off-menu rib kebabs always are. I snooped in the kitchen one afternoon to see how they managed to force the bony ribs onto the lance.
Uighur dining is filled with opportunities for conviviality. As a final gesture, a blue pot of green tea arrives ($1), poured into little Chinese cups. Lips coated with lamb grease, we gleefully toasted an amazing meal.
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